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The US is 'not helping enough' as India battles new COVID-19 wave: Expert

·Senior Reporter
·5 min read
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The U.S. is slowly ramping up its commitments to help India, which has been consistently reporting more than 300,000 new daily coronavirus cases. But as the world's second most populous country — with more than 1.4 billion people — some experts say the response is too slow.

"There is a humanitarian reason to do this, as well as self-interest, to prevent new variants from arriving," Dr. Leana Wen, former Baltimore health commissioner and a visiting professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, told Yahoo Finance. 

Prior to the surge, India was boasting faster vaccination rates than the U.S. and had donated doses to neighboring countries in need. India has since shifted to prioritize its citizens first, contributing to a slowdown in vaccinations in Europe and elsewhere.

The Serum Institute of India (SII) is Oxford University/AstraZeneca's (AZN) partner to produce billions of doses of vaccines for a majority of the world. But as the home of SII, the world's largest vaccine producer, the Indian government exercised pressure on the company to pivot to domestic distribution.

The U.S. has also been focused on inoculating its own population before committing to global distribution. But as vaccine supplies now outstrip demand, the Biden administration announced it will send up to 60 million doses to countries around the world, but only after regulatory review. Experts estimate that could mean doses will reach them by the end of May.

The U.S. response to India's crisis has sparked criticism at home and abroad. SII says the Defense Production Act (DPA) — a 1950 law that's now being used to defend the U.S. against the virus — has blocked its access to vital raw materials for vaccine production.

During a background call with reporters Monday, senior U.S. administration officials denied the claim.

"The DPA isn't the cause of any shortages ... there's just more global manufacturing happening everywhere in the world than suppliers can currently support," the official said.

The U.S. needs to do more than just send vaccines, some experts say. In a recent op-ed, Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University's school of public health, advocated for ventilators, protective gear and oxygen. His outline of India's needs subsequently appeared in an announcement from National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on Sunday.

Senior administration officials said Monday that Sullivan's announcement of sending raw materials for vaccines was possible due to the U.S. "diverting" its order for materials that would have been used for AstraZeneca vaccine production. 

On Monday, President Joe Biden spoke with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi about how the U.S. could help India curb its spread.

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AstraZeneca doses, COVID-19 treatments, and global response

Experts in the U.S. have been increasingly calling for an immediate release of AstraZeneca doses to India. The vaccine is already authorized by the World Health Organization and other "stringent" regulatory authorities, as defined by WHO, including in the U.K. and European Union. But the production of doses also requires a quality check and review by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

"There are people who, if you surge vaccines now to India, will be able to get the vaccines and will be alive because of it," Dr. Wen said, adding that the U.S. should still focus on vaccinating its own population and ensure the AstraZeneca doses meet regulatory standards before being shipped out. 

Meanwhile, many say countries and corporations should share the technology to produce more vaccines and treatments.

Since last year, Gilead Sciences (GILD) has provided voluntary licensing for its treatment remdesivir (branded as Veklury), which is currently the only approved drug to treat COVID-19 in the U.S., but it's in short supply in India. 

Gilead announced Monday it will send 450,000 vials of the treatment, as well as provide "its voluntary licensing partners with technical assistance, support for the addition of new local manufacturing facilities and the donation of active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) to rapidly scale up production of remdesivir."

Merck (MRK) announced Tuesday morning it would provide voluntary licensing for molnupiravir, still in clinical trials, to five Indian generic manufacturers. The doses would only be used once authorized.

In addition, Merck is providing $5 million worth of financial aid, oxygen-production equipment, masks and hand sanitizer to India.

Other countries have also offered to come to India's aid, including Russia and China, as much has been made about both countries' outsized roles in the pandemic while the U.S. was absent last year.

Russia's vaccine is under regulatory review in the European Union and both countries' vaccines are being used in Latin America and Africa — albeit with mixed reviews.

Lawrence Gostin, director of the global health law institute at Georgetown University, criticized the U.S. and Europe for not doing enough. "The United States, U.K. and Europe have hoarded vaccines [and] done a bunch of pre-purchase agreements," he said, noting that, "India was the only one that said, immediately, that it was going to try and help vaccinate the world. And here they are in a crisis, and we're not helping enough."

In fact, he added, India has been the model global citizen.

"If I had to choose a country around the world that has been more of a global citizen, I couldn't think of a country beyond India," Gostin said.

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